In the film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, a penis supposedly belonging to Judd Apatow makes a very memorable appearance. Pressed against the tinted window of a limo belonging to Conner4Real (played by Andy Samberg), the solidly girthed member is on screen for a good ten seconds; a reviewer has already deemed the dick's debut "one of the longest shots of a penis on screen" in recent memory.
The fact that directors Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone were able to get away with such a feat in an R-rated film is surprising to some; the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has long been known as a punisher of films featuring explicit sexuality. In a recent interview, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising director Nicholas Stoller recounted the byzantine restrictions he'd received for dicks in his films; they are allowed to flop left to right, but not up and down. "This is the thing with a penis," he told the interviewer, holding his palm out with fingers curled as he slowly flattened his palm. "It's like R, R, R, R, NC-17."
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But despite what some filmmakers may believe, there are no hard-and-fast rules governing violence, nudity, or sexuality on screen. In fact, according to film scholar and Oregon State University professor Jon Lewis, the MPAA's methodology is fickle by design.
"Ratings are supposed to swing back and forth according to what's acceptable in the wider culture, but of course it's also dependent on the anonymous crew who are seeing these movies and are supposed to somehow embody the changing morality in America," Lewis told Broadly. "What you get is completely unpredictable, capricious, ever-changing views on filmmaking, which is why it's such a nightmare for filmmakers to predict [the rating their film will get]."
In an official statement to Broadly, the MPAA reiterated their commitment to reflecting the wider culture's stance on things like swinging penises and said that the idea of a "rule book" is a myth.
It was shocking for Bruno to have gotten an R, especially because the dick actually spoke.
"For CARA [the MPAA's ratings board], the presence of nudity is not as important as the context, how involved the nudity is, and how parents perceive it. If parents would perceive it as strictly adult content, then it could warrant an NC-17 rating," the statement read. "However, the idea that male nudity results in an automatic higher rating is false."
Howard Fridkin, an MPAA alum who now owns a service that helps filmmakers navigate the ratings game, hasn't seen PopStar, but he told me he wasn't surprised a penis appeared in it for a prolonged period. He thought the dick scene in Bruno, in which a ludicrously long pecker swings around like a pinwheel, broke the mold in a way no other film has before or since.
"It was shocking for Bruno to have gotten an R, especially because the dick actually spoke," he said. "But often if the directors are very professional, they know exactly how much they can get away with."
In South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Saddam Hussein whips his out what appears to be his dick, then throws it off the bed, thus revealing it to be a dildo. Usually, though, erect penises are a no-go unless they're disconnected from the body.
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Fridkin said filmmakers can camouflage penises or, if they're resourceful, have extra footage they can use to replace whatever the MPAA believes merits an NC-17 rating, which is widely believed to be unmarketable.
I asked Fridkin if he'd ever heard anything about a rule dictating how dicks can swing. "No," he said, "but again, it all depends on what type of film it is. Horror would probably land you an NC-17—especially if the dick is going to be butchered or castrated. In comedies you can get away with a lot more."
Is that because the sight of a dick is inherently goofy? According to Lewis, dicks are "funny-looking things," though viewers also laugh at them for more complicated reasons.
"The prevailing morality in films seems so dominated by male shame. You laugh because it's embarrassing. And as long as you're not sexualizing them—erections are still the providence of hardcore porn—funny is just fine in the eyes of the MPAA."
They are allowed to flop left to right, but not up and down.
While there hasn't been any scholarly research comparing male to female nudity on film, Lewis thinks the naked eye candy is usually female. "I haven't seen the data, but I'm sure there are usually more naked women than naked men and more boobs than anything, " he said.
Trying to tell whether the MPAA has evolved in their thinking around nudity, though, is a difficult task. Communication between the MPAA and filmmakers isn't available to the public, so we don't know how many ten-second dick scenes didn't make it into theaters this year. Anecdotally, it may seems like we are living in a more enlightened age regarding male and female anatomy, but it's near impossible to judge.
Even after studying Hollywood censorship for years, Lewis is mystified by what the MPAA slaps with an R rating.
"Who knows what goes through these people's [film raters'] minds. Weirdly, they prefer nudity when it's disconnected from sex, and they feel the same about expletives. Fuck is fine; fucking less so. But again, there's no rulebook and no transparency, and as a filmmaker you can't win. Eventually, you're going to have to do whatever this anonymous censorship group tells you to do."